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Bernard of Clairvaux, St. (1090–1153)


St. Bernard of Clairvaux, the monastic reformer and theologian, was born of a noble family at Fontaine, France, near Dijon. He became a Cistercian at Cîteaux in 1112 and founding abbot of Clairvaux in 1115. Throughout his life he was a tireless founder, reformer, preacher, and writer who, as friend or opponent, made contact with almost every notable in western Europe. His influence as a simple abbot on high ecclesiastical affairs is without parallel in the history of the Western church, and his spiritual teaching has been a living force to the present day. Though he was a professed enemy of secular culture (he "raided" the schools of Paris on a celebrated occasion in 1140) and was lacking in scholastic training, Bernard was a literary genius of the first order, and no mean theologian. His treatises De Diligendo Deo (On the love of God; 1126) and De Gratia et Libero Arbitrio (On grace and free will; 1127), though based on St. Augustine, also show the influence of Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, and the Pseudo-Dionysius, as do also some of his longer letters. In the history of thought he is remembered for his controversies with Peter Abelard and Gilbert de La Porrée. He distrusted contemporary dialectic, partly because of a justified apprehension of the dangers in the formulas of both his opponents, but most of all because his approach to theological truth was by way of meditation and intuitive penetration, whereas theirs was by way of logical expression and analysis. His influence restrained theological improvisation and methodical virtuosity, and left the field clear for the great scholastics of the next century.

His most valuable contribution to thought was in the realm of mystical theology. He was a medieval pioneer of the analysis and explanation of mystical experience. His teaching, ostensibly based on St. Augustine, was in many respects new, and was followed by that of the Victorines and others, though later rivaled and eclipsed by the Dionysian-Thomist school of Rhineland Dominicans. Bernard's mysticism was one of love. Man, by recognizing his own nothingness, turns to God with humility and love, and man's will, with divine help, can reach perfect accord with the divine will. The divine Word can then teach him (infused knowledge) and move him (infused love) in an intimate union sometimes momentarily experienced as ecstasy. Thus Bernard differs, in expression at least, from the intellectual mysticism of Neoplatonism reflected in both Augustine and Dionysius. In his Sermons on the Canticle, Bernard was also a pioneer in the clear description of his own mystical experience, which in many ways resembled that of St. Teresa of Ávila.

See also Abelard, Peter; Augustine, St.; Gregory of Nyssa; Love; Medieval Philosophy; Mysticism, History of; Neoplatonism; Origen; Pseudo-Dionysius; Teresa of Ávila, St.


Works by Bernard are to be found in Patrologiae Cursus Completus, Series Latina. Edited by J. P. Migne, Vols. 182185 (Paris, 18441864).

For biography, see E. Vacandard, Vie de saint Bernard, 2 vols. (Paris, 1895), often reprinted. Also useful are articles on Bernard by E. Vacandard in Dictionnaire de théologie catholique (Paris, 1910) and by J. Canivez in Dictionnaire d'histoire et de géographie écclesiastique (Paris, 1935).

For Bernard's contribution to mystical theology, see Étienne Gilson, Théologie mystique de saint Bernard (Paris: J. Vrin, 1934), translated by A. H. C. Downes as The Mystical Theology of Saint Bernard (London: Sheed and Ward, 1940), C. Butler, Western Mysticism: The Teaching of SS. Augustine, Gregory and Bernard on Contemplation and the Contemplative Life, 2nd ed. (London: Constable, 1951). Dom J. Leclercq is preparing a critical edition of St. Bernard's works.

David Knowles (1967)

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